If it is at all possible, the rivalry between Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers always takes on additional acrimony when they are both battling to make the playoffs.
In 2008, when the Steelers traveled to Baltimore, they were on top of the AFC North with the Ravens just a game behind. The contest gave the appearance of being a lively clash between the two best defenses in the NFL. The Steelers were going into the game on a streak of four wins while the Ravens were 7-1 over their previous eight games. The Ravens only defeat within the division had been a 23-20 overtime loss in Pittsburgh.
“Realistically, you really can’t ask for a better scenario. Period,” offered Ravens Ray Lewis. “No matter who it was.”
“I don’t think I need an extra boost for this one,” Ravens Terrell Suggs acknowledged.
“I think even when we’re down we play each other tough,” observed Steelers Aaron Smith.
In his second season with the Steelers, Mike Tomlin was honest with his assessment of the challenge his team faced. “They play football the way we play football. They’re a physically tough and mentally tough football team. Those are things that we honor and desire to be. In order to do that, you got to line up and play with guys like these.”
John Harbaugh was the Ravens first-year coach and with rookie quarterback Joe Flacco had turned a 5-11 team into one challenging for the playoffs.
The (10-3) Steelers at the (9-4) Ravens; 2008 December 14th, 2008
As expected, defenses controlled the game from the opening kickoff. The first quarter remained scoreless as both teams struggled to put any offense together. Even a Steelers interception from Ryan Clark failed to be converted into points.
It was the special teams who finally broke the deadlock. A Ravens punt return of 46 yards set them up in the second quarter to kick a 28-yard field goal and edge ahead.
Ben Roethlisberger eventually strung some passes together to move the Steelers to Baltimore’s 16, but the Ravens held Pittsburgh to a Jeff Reed field goal of 31 yards. The Ravens hit back with a 26-yard field goal and went into the locker room at half time with a slender 6-3 lead.
The defenses continued to control the exchanges and midway through the third quarter, Baltimore’s Samari Rolle forced a fumble from Santonio Holmes. Ed Reed recovered to give the Ravens prime field position on the Steelers 16.
Baltimore spurned the golden opportunity when Pittsburgh’s defense kept their opponents to six yards on three plays and holding them to a 28-yard field goal. The Ravens six-point advantage kept the teams apart until the final period.
Roethlisberger moved the chains three times on the Steelers next possession before the drive stalled and Jeff Reed kicked a 30-yard field goal.
On the subsequent possession, the Ravens were looking good to add some points before Lawrence Timmons forced a fumble from Flacco. Baltimore recovered the fumble, but it took them out of field goal range forcing them to punt. The Steelers began their next series from their 8 with 3:36 left to force a win.
Roethlisberger was at his productive best as he led his team towards victory. Five of his passes went for first downs as the Steelers drove to Baltimore’s 4.
Roethlisberger took the snap, rolled left, thought about running then stopped before firing to his right. Holmes took possession with both feet in the end zone, but initially the official ruled the ball did not break the plane and spotted it just short of the goal line. After the play was reviewed, the touchdown was confirmed, and the result of the game now turned to the Steelers defense although Jeff Reed would give the Ravens a helping hand.
After the successful extra point, Reed was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct as the intense rivalry boiled over. Reed shoved a Ravens’ player who had spat in the face of the Steelers holder Mitch Berger. The additional 15 yards gave Baltimore good field position on their own 47 with 0:43 remaining.
Steelers fans were in for a nail biting finish, but the Pittsburgh’s defense held firm and the game was over when William Gay intercepted a Flacco pass.
The Pittsburgh Steelers 13 at the Baltimore Ravens 9
The attendance of 71,502 set a new record for M&T Stadium.
Mike Tomlin set a Steelers record with 21 wins in his first two seasons as head coach. He also became the first Steelers coach to win division titles in his first two years when they won back- to-back titles. The win was the 550th in Steelers history and they became the first AFC team to reach that record.
Hines Ward caught 8 passes for 107 yards and would finish with his fifth1000-yard season.
Talking about Roethlisberger, Mike Tomlin said, ““Seven delivered, as he has time and time again. I think a lot has been said about our offensive struggles, particularly in the last several weeks. One thing that is consistent is that when we need plays, when we have to move the ball, we have.”
Baltimore’s Ray Lewis acknowledged, “We lost the game, that’s the bottom line.” Without any malice he added, “There aren’t any freaking excuses – of course he didn’t get in (talking about the Santonio Holmes touchdown), but they called it the way they called it.”
The two teams met again for the AFC Championship in Heinz Field when Holmes caught a 65-yard touchdown pass. Troy Polamalu added an interception return of 40 yards to seal the 23-14 Steelers victory.
The Steelers win saw them go to Super Bowl XLIII where Ben Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes again in the end zone for that spectacular touchdown that took the sixth Lombardi back to Pittsburgh.